Florida voters send message to pork producers

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The votes are in, and swine producers may feel the winds of change blowing in to dictate new ways of raising and managing pigs.

Florida voters last week approved a state constitutional amendment prohibiting commercial hog producers from housing pregnant sows in gestation stalls.

The pens are used by the vast majority of pork producers, said Ed Pajor, a Purdue University expert on animal behavior.

Pajor, who researches animal behavior and management issues, said the science on the practice is inconclusive.

Other states to follow? While Florida is not a major pork producing state, Pajor said producers should expect similar activities in other states.

“Concern over how animals are raised is increasing across a broad spectrum of the population,” he said. “Producers need to consider ways of showing the public that they are acting in both the consumers’ and the animals’ interests.”

Practice has merit. “What people might not understand is that every production system has benefits and challenges,” said Kathy Chinn, a producer from Clarence, Mo., and chairman of the National Pork Board’s animal welfare committee.

“Producers who use gestation stalls can control the climate, maintain a clean environment so they can monitor and promote the health of their sows, and give each sow their own space so they can meet individual needs and protect them from other aggressive sows.”

Campaign questioned. The campaign isn’t without its controversy. According to the Center for Consumer Freedom, the Florida Election Commission ruled 9-0 that “probable cause” exists that Farm Sanctuary violated Florida campaign finance laws at least 210 times during its campaign on behalf of a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution.

Pros and cons. The current issue, however, “is more one of economics and social policy about how animals are raised than it is science,” Pajor said.

“Different housing systems have different advantages and disadvantages.”

Pajor said the benefits of gestation stalls are that they take up less space, allow for individual feeding and monitoring of animals and keep the animals from fighting.

However, stalls also restrict the sow’s movement and limit social interaction. He said under those conditions, some sows can develop stress-related behaviors.

Raising animals in groups allows the sows to socialize, but at the same time creates a hierarchy of dominance, Pajor said.

“Although the welfare of the group may be better, you may have more variation in animals,” he said. “The top sows do better and the smaller sows may do much worse than if they were in a stall.”

Pajor said some producers have experimented in the past with using gestation stalls that allow sows to turn around.

Most stalls currently in use do not allow for the animals to turn around.

He said problems with larger stalls included sows defecating in the feed when turned around and, as they grew, sows could get stuck in the cages when moving about.

Facing change. Producers are sensing the trend and trying to get ahead of public sentiment, Pajor said. “I’m talking to more producers who are considering putting in group systems as they plan to expand or renovate their facilities,” he said.

“Raising animals in groups requires different management procedures and trade-offs.”

Looking ahead. Pajor said other measures that would help producers address public concerns include developing industry guidelines, establishing certification programs and allowing third-party audits of production facilities.

Referendums, like the one in Florida, are relatively new ground for promoting animal issues.

Similar objectives have been achieved by appealing to restaurants, such as the changes that came about in the poultry industry after McDonald’s required producers to use larger cages for the chickens sold to the fast-food giant, Pajor said.

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Veterinary guidelines

DES MOINES, Iowa – Earlier this year, the American Veterinary Medical Association adopted a resolution supporting the use of sow housing configurations that:

1. minimize aggression and competition between sows;

2. protect sows from detrimental effects associated with environmental extremes, particularly temperature extremes;

3. reduce exposure to hazards that result in injuries;

4. provide every animal with daily access to appropriate food and water; and

5. facilitate observation of individual sow appetite, respiratory rate, urination and defecation, and reproductive status by caretakers.

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